Relationship- vs. Rule-Based Cultures: Socially-Based Control vs. Individual Autonomy

Imagine living in a culture where the village and the individual are one and the same.

That’s how the Bantu cultures of sub-Saharan Africa see things: an individual’s welfare is dependent on the village’s and vice versa.

One example of the way this manifests in the culture’s social norms is in their greeting.

The Shona people greet others with Maswere sei (“How is your day?”).

The response is Ndiswera maswerawo (“My day is OK if yours is.”).

Relationships are a fundamental part of the culture, so social control is exercised through relationships.

Last week, we talked about how cultures differ in their views of rules and relationships.

In the Shona society, certain relative figureheads are in authoritarian roles over subordinates in the family. Wives are subordinate to husbands, children to parents, younger siblings to older siblings, and all to the village elders.

The culture sees this subordination as natural. Subordinates don’t buck against the hierarchy, because it is the way of life, and the society’s baobab roots are formed and interconnected by relationships.

In contrast, rule-based cultures don’t see rules and relationships this way.

Human Beings as Autonomous Individuals

Rule-based societies view human beings as autonomous (i.e. having no natural authority over others).

As we saw in last week’s post, the authority in such cultures is rather embodied in the rules – rules that are applied to everyone.

This Western cultural concept can be traced back to God and the Ten Commandments.

God is seen as a lawmaker. He governs using universal rule of law.

The Greeks also influenced the West’s rule-based values, as they saw individuals as generally rational and rules as generally logical.

This idea is the basis of “homo economicus,” a principle in which a prosperous society is based on a logical and rational people.

It follows then that, in rule-based cultures, management and behavior is based upon the culture’s respect for rules.

Both cultural types have rules, but they differ in their relation to these rules in two ways:

  • In relationship-based cultures, the authority of rules is directly related to the authority of the person who lays down the law, while in rule-based cultures, rules are respected for their sake.
  • Moreover, in relationship-based cultures, supervision and shame ensure compliance with rules, while in rule-based cultures, fear of punishment and guilt are used for the same.

How This Difference Affects Business Relations

These complex differences can sew distrust between business partners.

Each culture views their own perspective on rules and relationships as just and right. In turn, they view the other’s perspective as corrupt.

Imagine this scenario, adapted from Riding the Waves of Culture:

A manager in a relationship-based culture offers his nephew a lofty position in the company, despite the fact that this nephew is unqualified.

A rule-based colleague of this manager tells his counterparts:

“They’ll always help their friends and family over more qualified candidates. It’s nepotism. They cannot be trusted.”

On the opposite side, the relationship-based manager sees his rule-based colleague pass up a friend for a position in lieu of a more qualified candidate.

He tells his team:

“He will not even help a friend? How can we trust him?”

In this way, cross-cultural business relations can be easily damaged or decimated, when the motives of other cultures are not understood.

Next week, we’ll talk about how to avoid this misunderstanding.

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions: Where Does Your Culture Fall Along the Scale?

Cultures differ.

That’s what Hofstede found in his research.

But in what dimensions can we categorize these differences?

And at what value does your culture fall along the scale?

Last week, we talked about how Hofstede’s research led him to designate four cultural dimensions.

With further research, he developed five.

Hofstede’s Five Cultural Dimensions

Hofstede’s five cultural dimensions scale the opposing extremes:

  • Uncertainty avoidance vs. uncertainty tolerance cultures –

We’ve talked extensively about uncertainty avoidance over the past few posts.

When valuing a culture’s uncertainty avoidance versus their uncertainty tolerance, ask yourself: Does the society prefer a stable environment? Is risk-taking avoided? Or does the culture promote innovation and demonstrate risk-taking behaviors and an ability to adapt quickly to uncertain events and changeable environments?

  • Long-term vs. short-term oriented cultures –

Some cultures want satisfaction here and now, while others are programmed to look toward the future.

Is this a culture of instant gratification? Or is the society accepting of delayed material, emotional, and social needs?

  • High-power distance vs. low-power distance cultures

Power distance has to do with a culture’s perception of the fair distribution of power. Some cultures strive for a level playing field, while for others, power is allotted to few.

Is equality preferred over hierarchy? Are subordinates accepting of their lower positions, or is there a more democratic power structure?

  • Collectivist vs. individualist cultures –

We’ve also discussed collectivist versus individualist cultures in this blog, with individualist cultures championing the success of the individual, while collectivist cultures are geared more toward the prosperity of the group.

Is the culture more family/group-oriented or does it promote individual ambition and achievement?

  • Masculine vs. feminine cultures 

The foundation of a masculine culture is based in more traditionally masculine traits and vice versa.

Does the culture thrive on competition and aggression? Or does it encourage cooperation and the nurturing of its community members?

Additional Cultural Dimensions

Piggybacking off of Hofstede’s research and insights, other researchers have identified further cultural dimensions, including:

  • Rule-based vs. relationship-based cultures –

In rule-based cultures, behavior is governed by rules and laws.

In relationship-based cultures, behavior is governed by one’s relationship with others.

  • Polite vs. rude cultures –

Polite cultures consider the feelings of others, while courtesy takes a backseat to justice in “rude” cultures.

Does the culture “turn the other cheek”? Or is “an eye for an eye” the motto?

  • Shame-based vs. guilt-based cultures –

Guilt-based cultures are primarily motivated by an internalized conscience, while the behaviors of shame-based cultures are motivated by the approval/disapproval of the group.

And the list goes on.

As research into cross-cultural differences progresses, the data discovered will, no doubt, paint a more intricate picture of the many dimensions in which cultures differ.

The data available to us now enables us to understand more clearly what motivates individuals from different cultural backgrounds – and how cultures operate, as a whole.

We’ll delve deeper into these dimensions next week.